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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Finding out what the public thinks is the core business of the Gallup organization. After decades of surveying everything from presidential elections to religious preferences, Gallup has become synonymous with public opinion polls. Lately, though, the name Gallup has been tarnished by a whistleblower lawsuit and a suspension from winning new federal contracts.

NPR's Carrie Johnson reports in our Business Bottom-Line.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Gallup's roots stretch all the way back to 1922, when its founder, George Gallup, was a college junior. He got a summer job interviewing people in St. Louis, as Gallup recalled for a program on the giants of advertising."

GEORGE GALLUP: And my assignment was to find out, by going house to house, what newspapers people were taking and what they read in those newspapers, what they liked.

JOHNSON: Gallup thought there was a better way of asking those questions. His innovations became pillars of the polling industry. Cliff Zukin is a political science professor at Rutgers University.

CLIFF ZUKIN: He was a pioneer and he was ethical. You know, he did it right. And he made money, but he also contributed to the methodology.

JOHNSON: George Gallup and his family owned the company for most of its history, serving as its public face at events such as the People's Choice Awards, where comedian Ray Romano gave Gallup's son, George Jr., this shout-out.

RAY ROMANO: I got to tell you, though, folks, if you ever get a chance, catch George live. 'Cause, oh, it's an event. The smoke and the groupies. Poll me. Poll me. Oh.

JOHNSON: The Gallup family sold the business about 25 years ago. Today, Zukin says, Gallup is a market research company that happens to conduct some public polls.

ZUKIN: Most people don't know that Gallup - that the public opinion research side of Gallup is the tail rather than the dog, and I think most of them don't know that the tail's not wagging as well as it used to wag.

JOHNSON: For the last two presidential election cycles, some of Gallup's polls have skewed overly Republican, a little farther from the mainstream. Lots of new rivals have appeared on the scene to claim some of Gallup's glory too. Then came a whistle-blower lawsuit. It was filed by a former employee and joined by the U.S. Justice Department. David Marshall, a lawyer for that employee, talked NPR last November.

DAVID MARSHALL: The law that this lawsuit is brought under by the government and by Michael Lindley, my client, is the False Claims Act. It's a 150-year-old law that prohibits defrauding the U.S. government in connection with contracts.

JOHNSON: The lawsuit accuses Gallup of overcharging the U.S. Mint and the State Department for research about public demand for new coins and American passports. The Justice Department says Gallup gave the government inflated estimates for work. David Marshall.

MARSHALL: This is a company that has branded itself and has caused the American people to believe that it is the most trusted name in polling. But as this lawsuit shows, the company was involved in fraud against the U.S. government, against the taxpayers.

JOHNSON: Both sides met this week to discuss a possible settlement of the case. Gallup's lawyer, William Kruse, declined to talk with NPR on tape, but in the past he's called the whistleblower a disgruntled employee. Meanwhile, Gallup's fighting on another front too. For the time being, the company's been suspended from winning any new federal contracts. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it has evidence, quote, "indicating a lack of business honesty or integrity."

Earlier this month, a former FEMA official who was set to go work for Gallup pleaded guilty to a criminal conflict-of-interest charge for steering work to the company before he left government. Kruse, Gallup's lawyer, says the temporary suspension is standard operating procedure when any allegations arise. He says Gallup is meeting with authorities to resolve the situation and he's hopeful the suspension will be lifted soon. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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